A few weeks ago I finished “What Technology Wants” by Kevin Kelly. For those unfamiliar with Kelly (as I was) he was one of the co-founders of Wired magazine and sits on the board of the Long Now Foundation.
What Technology Wants is a fascinating read – both attracting and repulsing me on several occasions. Often I find book reading to be a fairly binary experience – either I already (explicitly or intuitively) broadly agree with the thesis and the book is an exercise in validation and greater evidence, or I disagree, and the book pushes me to re-evaluate assumptions I have. More rare is a book which does both at the same time.
For example, Kelly’s breakdown of the universe as a series of systems for moving around information so completely resonated with me. From DNA, to language, to written word, our world keeps getting filled with systems the transmit, share and remix more information faster. The way Kelly paints this universe is fascinating and thought provoking. In contrast, his determinist view of technology, that we are pre-ordained to make the next discovery and that, from a technological point of view, our history is already written and is just waiting to unwind, ran counter to so many of my values (a strong believer in free-will). It was as if the tech-tree from a game like Civilization actually got it all right – that technology had to be discovered in a preset order and that if we rewound the clock of history, it would (more or less) this aspect of it would play out the same.
The tech tree is civilization always bothered me on a basic level – it challenged the notion that someone smart enough, with enough vision and imagination could have in a parallel universe, created a completely different technology tree in our history. I mean, Leonardo De Vinci drafted plans for helicopters, guns and tanks (among other things) in the 14th century? And yet, Kelly’s case is so compelling and with the simplest of arguments: No inventor ever sits around unworried that someone else is going to make the same discovery – quite the opposite, inventors know that a parallel discovery is inevitable, just a matter of time, and usually not that much time.
Indeed, Kelly convinces me that the era of the unique idea, or the singular discovery may be over, in fact the whole thing was just an illusion created by the limits of time, space and capacity. Previously, it took time for ideas to spread, so they could appear to come from a single source, but in a world of instant communication, we increasingly see that ideas spring up simultaneously everywhere – an interest point given the arguments over patents and copyright.
But what I’d really like to read is a feminist critique of What Technology Wants (if someone knows of one, please post it or send it to me). It’s not that I think that Kelly is sexist (there is nothing that suggests this is the case) it is just that the book reads like much of what comes out of the technology space – which sadly – tends to be dominated by men. Indeed, looking at the end of the book, Kelly thanks 49 thinkers and authors who took time to help him enhance his thesis, and the list is impressive including names such as Richard Dawkins, Chris Anderson, David Brin, and Paul Hawken. But I couldn’t help but notice only 2 of the 49 were obviously women (there may be, tops 4 women, who made the list). What Technology Wants is a great read, and I think, for me, the experience will be richer once I see how some other perspectives wrap their heads around its ideas.